Children fleeing unrest and hunger in Venezuela facing protection and health risks as they seek a better life in Colombia
Children are facing grave risks such as trafficking, recruitment by armed groups and organised criminal gangs and disease as they cross the Venezuelan border into Colombia seeking a new life, Save the Children is warning.
Spiralling political and economic turmoil—which brought hyperinflation, unemployment, food and medical supply shortages, and resulted in a malnutrition crisis—has sparked a dramatic increase in the number of people leaving Venezuela in desperation.
Last year saw a 62% increase—at more than half a million—in the number of people who crossed into Colombia and stayed there, according to Colombia’s national migration authority*.
Thousands more continue to pour over the 2,219 km border at both legal and illegal entry points in what is likely to become a protracted migrant crisis.
Save the Children’s child protection coordinator in Colombia, Jenny Gallego, said children entering the country alone or even accompanied through areas populated by armed groups and drug gangs, were at particular risk of kidnapping and exploitation.
“These children who cross at illegal entry points are crossing a virtual minefield as they navigate their way to populated areas, and it’s likely that thousands are falling through the cracks,” she said.
“Their total invisibility to support services and government agencies leaves them incredibly vulnerable to those who seek to exploit and abuse them, such as traffickers or recruiters for armed groups and organised criminal gangs.”
But she said all children seeking a better life in Colombia faced risks, with those arriving with their parents via legal border crossings often living in abysmal conditions with no proper shelter.
Carolina**, a 33-year-old mother of six from Venezuela who is eight months pregnant with twins and recently made the perilous journey across the border, says she is now facing a different kind of hardship.
Three of her children live with her in Colombia in a corrugated iron shelter with a gaping hole in the roof and tarpaulins as walls—their previous makeshift home in Colombia flooded.
“Because of the economic crisis I couldn’t afford to buy food anymore, so I decided to come to Colombia. People make fun of my house as it has no proper structure or roof, but that’s the only thing I have,” she said.
“I cannot get a job here as we are Venezuelan and I don’t have a work permit. This morning I went to the mayor’s office to get a plate of food for my children, but I did not get it. I do not want my children to live like this.”
Her children are attending one of Save the Children’s child friendly spaces, which are safe places where they can play and learn—but conditions in the border regions are harsh.
Many children have diarrhea, skin conditions and respiratory illnesses due to a lack of proper sanitation, and there have also been outbreaks of measles in the slums where many are living.
Meanwhile, the arrival of the rainy season this month means the spread of water borne diseases, such as respiratory illnesses and diarrhea, will be exacerbated by flooding in particular areas.
Mateo**, 12, said while in Venezuela he lived in a house with electricity and running water, he and his family often went hungry due to skyrocketing food prices.
In Colombia he’s living in a shelter with a tin roof and tarpaulins for walls, with no electricity, water or plumbing.
“I am happy now, because we eat well here. Although we do not live that well, I'm satisfied that it's better here.”
Even so, Mateo has been struck down by a range of illnesses—from the flu, to headaches, vomiting and diarrhea—due to the poor living conditions and because he had been malnourished.
Mrs Gallego, the child protection coordinator, says all parents have had to make a difficult decision in migrating to Colombia.
“Often their children are no longer as hungry as they were in Venezuela, but they’re now at increased risk of other health concerns due to their dire living conditions. Few have access to healthcare services and education.”
Save the Children Colombia’s Executive Director Maria Paula Martinez says that after decades of civil conflict, Colombia already has more internal displacement than any other country in the world, at more than seven million people. More than half of those are children***.
“Now hundreds of thousands are entering from Venezuela and will continue to arrive as the crisis in that country shows no sign of abating. The Colombian Government and the rest of the world must recognise this for what it is – a prolonged humanitarian emergency which is likely to get far worse.”
She said Venezuelans are entering the country as migrants and many more have arrived illegally without passports, which means their access to healthcare and education is extremely limited and they don’t have work rights.
“We support UNHCR’s call for the Colombian Government to continue to show generosity towards the Venezuelans by legally recognising their basic rights and presence in the country to ensure they and their children are protected,” Ms Martinez said.
“But the responsibility for these children does not only fall to Colombia. We urge the governments of surrounding countries to keep their borders open and we urge governments around the world to support these governments to help children and families in need.”
For interviews with spokespeople in Colombia or London call Lily Partland on +44 (0) 772 126 1997
Notes to editor:
* Migratory Response of Colombia, Migration Colombia, October 2018; Migratory aspects in the Colombian border, IOM, August 2018; Migratory radiography Colombia – Venezuela, Migration Colombia, December 2017; and Radiography Venezuelans in Colombia, Migration Colombia, December 2017. According to Migracion Colombia, in 2017, 13,650,962 people entered Colombia from Venezuela legally and 13,150,667 re-entered back into Venezuela. Of the 13,650,962 migrants who came into Colombia, 550,399 remained (176,433 legally and 373,966 illegally). This is a 62% increase from 2016.
** Names have been changed
*** 2018 Humanitarian Needs Overview, p. 8, OCHA Colombia, November 2017, https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/system/files/documents/files/hno_2018_en.pdf
- Save the Children is working in border settlements including Arauca, Norte de Santander and La Guajira and three operating child friendly spaces and providing psycho social support, hygiene kits and education materials. It will scale up its response in August to provide shelter and child protection services.
- According to the UN Human Rights Council, by the end of 2017, a family needed to earn 63 times the minimum wage (US$12), just to buy basic food. The country now has 1.3 million undernourished people, and an average of five to six children dying every week from malnutrition. Venezuela has the highest malnutrition rate for 25 years with 300,000 children at risk of death. Moreover, health centres continue to report serious shortages of medicines, basic equipment and medical supplies putting many people at risk of serious health issues.